Agenda item


To present the recently published report detailing the findings of the inspection by Ofsted inspectors of Herefordshire Council children’s services in July 2022 and to outline both the action taken immediately and since the inspection to address some of the concerns raised, and the implications of the Statutory Direction issued by the Secretary of State. 


Council received and noted a report from the cabinet member children and families to present the recently published report detailing the findings of the inspection by Ofsted inspectors of Herefordshire Council children's services in July 2022 and to outline both the action taken immediately and since the inspection to address some of the concerns raised, and the implications of the statutory direction issued by the Secretary of State.


The cabinet member children and families proposed and introduced the report. In introducing the report the cabinet member raised the principal points below:


·       The outcome of the Ofsted inspection report was to conclude that the overall effectiveness of children’s services was inadequate. That judgement was accepted and it was acknowledged that the judgement was a criticism not only of children’s services but also the whole council.

·       The judgement was a significant concern to all associated with the council and an apology was provided to all those children and families who had not received the support they required when they needed it. The families posing questions at the meetings should be directed towards the record of questions and answers after the meeting and there was an open invitation to all families to make contact with cabinet member directly.

·       The department for education had appointed Eleanor Brazil as the commissioner for children’s services in Herefordshire.

·       Over the course of the past year the chief executive and director of children’s services had been very open in their assessment of the challenges that they face in achieving improvement in children’s services. It was understood that the council was not sufficiently advanced on its improvement journey but the strength of the Ofsted judgement was a shock with conclusions that poor practice, drift and delay, the impact of staff turnover and a lack of management grip existed in children’s services.

·       A significant concern was the risk posed due to a lack of coordination between local agencies. Since the judgement, immediate action had been taken. The multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) and other frontline children’s services had been strengthened by increasing capacity and resource. Senior leaders of all agencies had met and reviewed all cases where children were at risk.

·       Staff from children’s services have been open and co-operative with Ofsted and the inspectors had acknowledged their dedication.

·       The inspectors had also welcomed the permanent leadership team that was in place which was having a significant impact.

·       Partnerships and multi-agency arrangements were mentioned in three of the nine key areas for improvement. All issues identified in the judgement do not lie solely in children’s services at the council. 

·       The areas identified for improvement were broad and quite general. This indicates that the fundamental systems and processes that should have existed in children’s services were not in place.

·       Progress had been achieved recently with the recruitment of more social workers, the strengthening of the MASH, increased supervision and reduced case-loads for social workers.

·       The opportunity for effective improvements to be made must now be seized by the council.


The leader of the council seconded the report, he spoke at the end of the debate.


Eleanor Brazil, the Commissioner for children's services in Herefordshire addressed the meeting and raised the principal points below:


·       The contributions of the families at the meeting had been a reminder of the profound impact the decisions and actions of the council had in lives of families and children.

·       The council was at the start of the process to make improvements to children's services however it could not put right the failings of the past. The role of the commissioner was to try to ensure high quality services for children and families.

·       There was a legacy of poor practice and there had been failings in the past and the focus must be on providing a better response to children and families.

·       Government intervention was very serious and it was recognised that the council was understanding of the circumstances in the steps it was taking. 

·       The role of the commissioner was to help drive improvement and working with leadership to identify what actions were required. There was a need to have greater clarity around standards, expectations and ambitions for children and young people in Herefordshire.

·       The commissioner had served as director of children's services in different local authorities who had been found by Ofsted to require improvement and had played the commissioner role in a number of local authorities. While similar issues with children's services at Herefordshire would be encountered, there was no preconceived idea of solutions that required implementation.

·       The commissioner would talk with a range of staff throughout the council and with key partners.

·       Details of any useful reading the commissioner should undertake should be sent direct to the commissioner’s council email address.

·       The actions identified for improvement to children's services needed to be taken forward with pace. The commissioner would be looking at the trajectory of improvement, the direction of travel and the difference that was being made.

·       The commissioner would be reporting back to the Secretary of State with recommendations. The likely timescale to move beyond an inadequate service was 18 months to 2 years but improvements and progress must be made during the process.

·       Examples of good practice would exist at the council which needed to be strengthened and built-upon. In addition, expertise existed at the council which would be utilised to drive forward improvement.

·       The council needs help and support to achieve improvement which the role of the commissioner was intended to provide. Support would also come from other local authorities.

·       At the end of the commissioners review period a report would be drafted; examples of commissioner’s reports were available in the public domain. The report would focus on: practice; leadership; political support; strategic leadership; how partners worked together; and the impact on children and families and on staff.


Council debated the report, during the debate the principal points below were raised:


·       The report made difficult reading and members were deeply troubled and angered by the findings of Ofsted. The regret and sympathy of the Council was extended to all children and families who had been failed by children’s services and who had been affected by the findings in the judgement.

·       As members of the council, councillors had a responsibility to children in Herefordshire as corporate parents. Members were responsible for ensuring that children were safe, looked after and cared for. The report showed that children's services were failing and that members had failed to act as effective corporate parents. As corporate parents all members were responsible for the failings identified by Ofsted.

·       Following previous judgements, which found that improvements were required in children's services, significant funding had been invested and additional staff had been recruited. However, action taken since the 2018 judgement had not been effective and a radical change to the approach of improvement was now required. Too much time had been spent looking back. Members now needed to challenge more and to question what improvements were being made.

·       Scrutiny was dedicated to becoming more effective to help the council drive improvements to children's services. As part of this ambition a new co-optee had been taken on to the children and young people's scrutiny committee, there were regular briefings from officers at the council and closer work was being undertaken with Telford and Wrekin as partners in practice. In addition, work with the new statutory scrutiny officer was realising improvement.

·       There had been consistent failure in children's services over the course of the last 10 to 12 years. There had been very little improvement in practice for Children in Need. There was a lack of understanding of what was required to make improvement. Problems had been consistently found with poor decision making and poor understanding of risk. Improvement was required from partner agencies and in the supervision undertaken by senior officers.

·       Vulnerable children had been failed and taxpayers would carry the financial burden for the urgent action that was required.

·       The conduct of the extraordinary Council meeting was questioned and the limited opportunity for members of the public to speak. This was part of the culture of the council that required change to increase accountability and scrutiny. The families present at the meeting should have been allowed to speak at greater length.

·       Stability and sufficiency of the workforce in children's services was essential. The commissioner had highlighted the importance of making improvements at pace. The objectives of the improvement plan that had existed until the end of March 2022 had not been realised. Significant improvement was required that involved all members, officers and agencies.

·       Children and families had been let down by the council. Children were not being protected from harm. Previous improvement plans had not been effective and had been a bureaucratic response rather than providing a focus on the workforce to ensure sufficient resources were focused effectively.

·       A statement in paragraph 11 of the report appeared to diminish the potential for harm of children and was challenged. The Ofsted report had concluded that children and young people in Herefordshire were not protected from harm.

·       It was felt that it was essential for the commissioner to meet with representatives of the families.

·       The judgement and the report were significant and set out comprehensively the failings and improvements required. This provided a focus and structure for future reports and updates.

·       A response was requested from the monitoring officer with details of the reasons for the rejection of certain public questions sent to the current meeting.

·       It was suggested that focus groups involving families receiving children's services could be established to share experience of what had failed and also suggest where improvements could be made.

·       Collective responsibility for the failings of children's services was important to acknowledge however responsibility and accountability through leadership was essential to effect change.

·       Members of the council needed greater access to information including where failings existed and where improvements were required to ensure they could act more effectively as corporate parents.

·       The manner in which the meeting was being conducted was regrettable and it should have included inputs from the families. A public meeting was being arranged by the families and it was hoped that all members would attend.

·       Members shared responsibility for the findings in the judgement as corporate parents but some members occupied positions which attracted a special responsibility allowance and had a greater level of responsibility for children’s services. Such members should consider their performance and decide whether they were the right person to take forward improvements.

·       Under the new constitution, agreed in May 2022, the cabinet were able to hold forums on different subjects. The improvements required to children's services were a relevant topic to take forward within such a forum.

·       Following earlier judgements, additional resource and efforts had been dedicated towards achieving improvements in children's services. Ofsted considered there had been too little progress and the pace of improvement had been too slow. Improvement required additional money, time and effort to achieve improvements. The council could take hope from other areas that had achieved a good rating following an inadequate judgement.

·       It was important that a balance was achieved between challenge and support in the rollout of the improvement plan. It was critical that staff and social workers in children's services felt supported.

·       Poor leadership and management had reduced the morale of social workers to a very low level. Scrutiny needed to be more effective in maintaining an overview of the improvements.

·       A number of members and the skills and experience they possessed could be utilised by scrutiny and it was suggested that the membership of the children's scrutiny committee could be enlarged.

·       The council should take inspiration form the example of Telford and Wrekin Council. The objectives of children's services from Telford and Wrekin Council would serve as a good baseline against which to assess improvements required in Herefordshire.


In seconding the report leader made the principal points below:


·       The Leader was deeply saddened by the report and apologised to each family who had suffered as a result of the failings of children’s services.

·       Councillors had explained that they had been aware of failings over a prolonged period of time but any challenge they raised was not acted upon properly. This culture would have to change.

·       There needed to be proper engagement with people, to listen to families and children and to not assume that the council knows best. A whole Council commitment was required to ensure children and families were supported. A bottom-up approach was advocated to hear the voices of the families and children.

·       It was important that it was an all-Council commitment to achieve improvement and to provide support to children and families.

·       The Leader welcomed the commissioner and explained he looked forward to working with her.


The cabinet member children and families made the following principal points in reply to the debate:


·       All points raised by members would be fed into the action plan which was being developed.

·       Members would have additional opportunities to raise issues and comments and be involved in the development of the plan. This would occur through the scrutiny committee, member briefings and informal meetings.

·       Councillors had skills, experience and passion to contribute to the improvements that were necessary.

·       Councillors had explained that they had been raising issues and concerns for many years but this has not been acted upon and more decisive action had been required.

·       The lack of clarity had been a key theme of the meeting and it was a priority that the cabinet member was acting upon to ensure there was: an understanding of how processes worked; what are the pathways through the processes; and where are looked after children in the county located. It was essential that members had a greater understanding of services on the ground; it was difficult for members to be effective in challenging the service and supporting local residents without this understanding. Improvements were being made in this regard.

·       A greater understanding of the experience of social workers was also important and how it feels to work for the council.

·       It was also useful to understand how it feels to work with the council from the perspective of the families.

·       The Ofsted judgement was expressed in terms of experience and impact without jargon.

·       There was a balance required in the allocation of officer resource to ensure staff could undertake crucial work whilst members also received updates.

·       Learning was being undertaken with colleagues in other local authorities around the country who had undertaken a similar journey, to progress from an inadequate Ofsted judgement. It was encouraging that other members had undertaken similar actions to inform their understanding. 

·       Of central importance was the work the council does to ensure children and families have the support they require.

·       The administration had taken the points on board and would not be complacent. There was ambition for the services to get to a good Ofsted rating. A whole-council approach was required and the attitude to work together was welcomed. It was important to now move forward.



Supporting documents: